Friday, January 23, 2015

False Causation (Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc) Examples: 2012

EXAMPLES AND ANALYSIS: 2012 False Causation (Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc)
"According to a June Gallup report, most Republicans (58 percent) believed that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Most Democrats and independents did not agree. This anti-intellectualism is antediluvian. No wonder a 2009 Pew Research Center report found that only 6 percent of scientists identified as Republican and 9 percent identified as conservative. Furthermore, a 2005 study found that just 11 percent of college professors identified as Republican and 15 percent identified as conservative. Some argue that this simply represents a liberal bias in academia. But just as strong a case could be made that people who absorb facts easily don’t suffer fools gladly."
-- Columnist Charles Blow, December 7, 2012.

Comment: Blow is appealing to polling data to argue that Republicans are "anti-intellectual", which amounts to caricaturing them as "stupid" or perhaps as not caring about facts. Blow also considers a causal connection between political affiliation and scientific occupation, though isn't this a case of false causation?

"If we do nothing, all the tax cuts expire. … [Tax rates will] go back to Clinton-era rates, which -- guess what? -- worked pretty darn well for the economy when Clinton was president."
-- Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), November 26, 2012.

Comment: Perhaps it's true that the economy did well while tax rates were at a certain level. But does that prove that it did well because tax rates were at that level? Is this false causation reasoning?

ROMNEY: "And we talk about evidence. Look at the evidence of the last four years. It’s absolutely extraordinary. We’ve got 23 million people out of work or stopped looking for work in this country. It’s just -- we’ve got -- when the President took office, 32 million people on food stamps; 47 million on food stamps today; economic growth this year slower than last year; and last year slower than the year before. Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today."
-- GOP presidential candidate former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA), October 3, 2012, during the first presidential debate between Romney and President Barack Obama.

Comment: Romney is making the "failed policies" assertion against Obama. But he's using "false causation" reasoning -- the same sort of faulty, simplistic argument Obama is using to dismiss Romney's economic policies. Would a different set of policies have yielded better results than Obama's? Again, experimental data would resolve the issue, but that's the kind of data that's hard to get in economics.

OBAMA: "If you believe that we can cut taxes by $5 trillion and add $2 trillion in additional spending that the military is not asking for -- $7 trillion -- just to give you a sense, over 10 years, that’s more than our entire defense budget -- and you think that by closing loopholes and deductions for the well-to-do, somehow you will not end up picking up the tab, then Governor Romney’s plan may work for you. But I think math, common sense, and our history shows us that’s not a recipe for job growth. Look, we’ve tried this -- we’ve tried both approaches. The approach that Governor Romney is talking about is the same sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003. And we ended up with the slowest job growth in 50 years. We ended up moving from surplus to deficits, and it all culminated in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Bill Clinton tried the approach that I’m talking about. We created 23 million new jobs. We went from deficit to surplus. And businesses did very well. So in some ways we’ve got some data on which approach is more likely to create jobs and opportunity for Americans."
-- President Barack Obama, October 3, 2012, during the first presidential debate between Obama and GOP presidential candidate former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA).

Comment: This is very poor reasoning. In particular, it's faulty reasoning of the "false causation" variety. For Obama is stating that there was good job growth during the Clinton presidency (1993-2000) and poor job growth during the presidency of George W. Bush (2001-2008). Then Obama notes that different policies were enacted by Clinton and Bush, and concludes that the different rates of job growth occurred because of the different policies. But this argument is only valid if the only difference between these two time periods was the different economic policies. But, of course, there are lots of other things -- economic decisions and states of affairs overseas, for one thing -- that could have contributed to the different rates of job growth. (And, during the Clinton presidency, a Republican Congress influenced economic policy from 1995 onward.) Economics is a social science, and it's very complicated. Obama's argument (an argument that Clinton himself has made) is very simplistic. It's as if someone were to point out that Democrats were voted control of Congress in 2006, took office in 2007, and the economy went sour in 2008, and therefore conclude that Democrats therefore caused the downturn. To draw the sort of conclusion Obama wants to draw you really need experimental data, not historical data. And that's hard to come by in economics.

"So who’s right? Well, since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private- sector jobs. So what’s the job score? Republicans: twenty-four million. Democrats: forty-two. … Now, people ask me all the time how we got four surplus budgets in a row. What new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always give a one-word answer: arithmetic."
-- President Bill Clinton, September 5, 2012, during his address at the Democratic National Convention.

Comment: This is faulty reasoning, of the "false causation" variety. Just because job growth was better while Democrats were president doesn't mean job growth was better because Democrats were president. Another problem with this argument is that not all Democratic presidents enact the same economic policies (just like not all Republican presidents enact the same economic policies). Last, but not least, presidents don't control economic policy by themselves. On any number of economic issues -- such as federal taxation and spending -- they have to collaborate with Congress, and Congress is often not of the same party as the president. Clinton, for instance, was president for eight years, six of which had Republicans in control of Congress. Should Democrats get praise or blame for the economic news during those six years, since Clinton was a Democratic president, or should Republicans get praise or blame for the economic news during those six years, since they controlled Congress? Do Republicans get credit for "arithmetic"? (The same mistake was made in a chart about presidents and debt not long ago.) In summary, Clinton's argument makes only half the correlation between parties and job growth, and, in any event, correlation doesn't imply causation.

"In the richest country in the history of the world, this Obama economy has crushed the middle class. Family income has fallen by $4,000, but health insurance premiums are higher, food prices are higher, utility bills are higher, and gasoline prices have doubled. Today more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before. Nearly one out of six Americans is living in poverty. … His policies have not helped create jobs, they have depressed them."
-- GOP presidential candidate former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA), August 30, 2012, at the Republican Party National Convention.

Comment: This is "failed policies" rhetoric, and perhaps faulty reasoning of the "false causation" sort, as well. It's not enough to state that there are bad circumstances after Obama took office. You have to show that there's a causal link, that the bad economic data is because of Obama being president.

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